This is a guest post by Jonathan Guyer, a program associate at the New America Foundation/Middle East Task Force and the official cartoonist of The Washington Note. He also is assistant editor for The Middle East Channel at FP. He blogs at Mideast by Midwest.
Bahrain has lifted its “State of National Safety,” and Saudi and Emirati tanks have begun to exit the small Gulf kingdom. Yet tensions are higher than ever with the Bahraini authorities’ ongoing crackdown on the democratic reform movement. The government’s move to restore an air of stability is too little, too late.
Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa delivered a speech to journalists today in which he attempted to affirm his reformist credentials while avoiding the much-needed actions to back them up.
In his remarks, the monarch discussed the importance of free press, saying: “We confirm to all journalists… no one shall be harmed due to his peaceful, civilized expression of opinion in this state of law and intuitions.” Yet as recently as last week, Bahraini authorities tortured a France 24 reporter. It doesn’t appear that journalists are, as the King described them, “partners in the process of this country’s development.”
Meanwhile, NPR reports that women are the latest target of Bahrain’s crackdown:
Bahraini human rights groups say hundreds of women have been detained in recent weeks. Most were released. Dozens are still being held. One female journalist reportedly was beaten so badly she can’t walk.
It’s time for the US to reassess its policies toward Bahrain, lest America remain complicit in such brutal oppression during an era of hope and change for Middle East. While the US relies upon on Bahrain for strategic cooperation (and real estate — the US’s naval regional naval headquarters is on Bahrain’s shores), the tenability of that relationship is anything but guaranteed. In fact, a US human rights official was removed from his post at the embassy in Manama last week following repeated threats and slurs from pro-government newspapers and websites.
Yesterday, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg met with the Bahraini Foreign Minister. I hope Steinberg wasn’t shy in articulating just how little tolerance the US has for egregious violations of human rights – ranging from destroying Shiite mosques to targeting medical professionals. As might be expected, the Bahraini press hailed the meeting as an expression of strong bilateral relations.
Compare this to President Obama’s Middle East address two weeks ago, in which he warned:
…[M]ass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.
But with those opposition leaders in jail, along with myriad innocent civilians who have been targeted in an arbitrary sectarian campaign against Shia communities, what are the prospects for peaceful dialogue?
As I wrote last week on The Fresh Outlook:
Bahrain is one of those instances where US interests and values have not lined up. With the US’ Fifth Fleet docked on Bahrain’s shores – and over 2,200 Americans living off the base – the furthest Obama can go is wagging his finger…. If the Bahraini regime refuses to heed Washington’s advice, will the Obama administration determine that Bahrain’s authoritarian regime is simply the quid-pro-quo for keeping the Fifth Fleet in its cosy home?
As Obama said last week: “We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator,” referring to the individual who sparked the Tunisian revolution and, in turn, the Arab Spring. However, if Washington chooses to ignore the dark side of its military presence in Bahrain – and continues both its implicit and overt support for the repressive Bahraini regime – then US values and interests will remain very much out of synch in the post-Tahrir Square Middle East.
Bahrain is the barometer for the Obama administration’s approach to allies that engage in counter-revolutionary brutality. And the tragedy of what’s happening to peaceful activists in Bahrain will be a stain on the US’s reputation, no matter how much money is pledged to help Egypt or Tunisia in their transition to democracy.
– Jonathan Guyer